8 Myths Every Writer Needs to Dispel
We live in a world where lots of people like to tell us what to do. As a writer, when you start studying the craft you’re bombarded with lots of rules and must do’s and should not’s and this can get pretty overwhelming at times. Sometimes it can even put you off starting something because you’re so busy following the rules that you forget to create.
If like me you’ve faced moments like that then here’s a little list of things you’ve been told and things you’ve read that you can either take with a pinch of salt or use to help you come to the realisation that there’s more wiggle room over some things than you thought.
ONE: EVERY WRITER MUST WRITE EVERY DAY TO BE A GREAT WRITER
Um. No. You don’t need to write every day to be a great writer. It’s important to write regularly but this doesn’t have to be every day. It’s also good to write at different times and in different moods in order to get the best out of your writing, but writing every day, 365 times a year? It’s not necessary. Having said that, some writers love a daily practice. Roald Dahl purportedly wrote every day between 10 am – 12 pm and 4 pm – 6 pm. Some writers, like my tutor John McCullough, write primarily at a certain time of the year. When I last spoke to him about it, John said that he writes extensively over the Summer as he teaches so this makes sense to him and fits in with his schedule. I think that’s the key thing here. It’s got to work for you. So it might be that you do write daily, but it might mean that you don’t. The point is, don’t worry if you don’t. I hop between furious periods of daily writing and periods of time when I write nothing at all. Sometimes I’ll write in the day a lot and sometimes I’ll write in the early hours of the morning. I have no real set practice and frankly, that’s ok. It’s good to aim for something, but how you get there can be left more open than you think. Sometimes, I think if you try and jam creativity into a set period of time when that’s not really the way you’re inclined to do things, all this does is create pressure around writing. Rather perversely, have you ever found that when someone, even if it’s yourself, tells you that you MUST do something, it makes you all the more eager NOT to do it? Something to ponder on.
TWO: YOU MUST WRITE FROM EXPERIENCE
I hear this a lot and it’s just not true. To be honest, if all we did was write from experience we’d run out of material pretty quickly and if like me most of your days consist of petting cats, going about your daily business and working, writing from experience would be pretty boring. Sure, we’ve all got more epic tales to tell and darker tales to delve into and share which can make for some intense, authentic reading but you don’t have to limit yourself to yourself. As Natalie Goldberg says, ‘We should […] stretch ourselves beyond our borders.’ Literary agent Donald Maass agrees as he asserts that writers should, ‘Say what matters. That’s writing what you know.’ We’re all more than capable too of researching or reaching out to people who have had the experience we want to write about. It’s vital to consider the ethics around what you do with the information you glean from face to face conversations or interviews but that’s a whole other topic. So there we have it. Think beyond yourself, write about what matters and research. You don’t have to have been there, done it and got every t-shirt available.
THREE: YOU CAN’T USE ADVERBS
Adverbs are usually created by adding ‘ly’ to the end of an adjective and technically, overusing adverbs can become annoyingly, irritatingly, upsettingly repetitive and make for lazy writing. They catch the ear in a bad way. However, to say that you can never use an adverb again is not the case. It’s best to expand and open out adverbs to give a clearer description of what’s happening or what someone feels, but using adverbs now and then is not going to detract from the power of your writing. Honest.
FOUR: YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO SHOW NOT TELL
Well, yes. Showing is far more important than telling but it’s not possible to show all the time. I’d say it’s about a 70/30 or 80/20 split in favour of showing not telling. That’s because you want your readers to fill in the missing pieces themselves, however, if you showed what was happening ALL the time, your book would be twice as long. A deft bit of telling on occasion is needed to keep the action moving. Don’t overuse it, but you don’t have to completely avoid it.
FIVE: YOU HAVE TO TAKE CLASSES IN HOW TO WRITE TO BE A GREAT WRITER
Despite the fact that I’ve taken a lots of classes in how to hone my writing skills, I don’t believe this is the only way to become a great writer. There are lots of resources available outside of taking classes/courses and although they are a wonderful way to learn, if money is tight or you just want this to be something between you and you, books, articles and reading other people’s work will get you far. Nora Roberts is a prime example of a writer who had no formal experience of writing when she famously wrote her first story whilst snowed in during a blizzard. She has produced over two hundred titles over a career that has spanned more than three decades. That’s pretty amazing. All you need is a desire to learn and if that involves attending courses, brilliant, attend courses, but if you’d prefer to learn in a different way, there’s nothing to stop you.
SIX: YOU HAVE TO WRITE SOMETHING THAT WILL SELL, SELL, SELL!
So you’ve heard that crime fiction is a very popular genre and you think to yourself, I know what I’ll do, I’ll write a crime novel. I never watch crime dramas and I’m not interested in reading them but it’s bound to sell so I better get writing. No. You’d better not. You’ll never finish it. If you don’t have passion for and a great interest in what you’re writing about, what you write will come across as false and an exercise in ticking some boxes. Even if you know what you’re going to write might not be a big seller, write it anyway. If it comes from the heart you’ll find a way to get it out into the world and you’ll be proud of what you’ve written because it matters.
SEVEN: AS A FEMALE WRITER I SHOULD WRITE UNDER A MALE PSEUDONYM IN ORDER TO GET NOTICED
It is with a great deal of sadness and deep seated irritation that I understand why you might think this as a female writer. I listened to a radio four programme earlier this year called ‘Why are even women biased against women?’ where they told a true story that provides the reason for why I’m about to give the advice that I am. A female writer submitted part of a manuscript under her own name to fifty mostly female agents. She received responses from 2 out of 50 agents requesting to see the rest of the manuscript. Then, she sent the same partial manuscript under a male name and got 17 out of 50 agents requesting to see the rest. The difference is staggering. Therefore, you’d think that it would be a good idea to either submit under a male pseudonym or at the very least a gender neutral pseudonym. I’m going to give the opposite advice however. If women are to achieve gender equality, we must not bow to this pressure. Instead, we must use our given name and if we identify as female that is something to be proud of, not ashamed of. No matter our sex or what gender we identify as we deserve recognition. Powerful, engaging writing has nothing to do with sex or gender. A radio programme like this makes people think twice and encourages women to support women. I hope that what I write now will give female writers the confidence to submit manuscripts under their own name as part of the process of achieving gender equality.
EIGHT: TO BE TAKEN SERIOUSLY AS A WRITER YOU MUST HAVE SOMETHING PUBLISHED
The goal of getting published is a wonderful one to have but it doesn’t mean that if you don’t have something published you are any less of a writer. Sometimes, fantastic books get rejected from multiple publishers which is just a part of the industry. It’s ok too, to want to write for yourself without the goal of publishing. It doesn’t mean you have any less to offer or that what you’re writing isn’t any good. Another quote from Natalie Goldberg feels very relevant here: ‘If your book doesn’t sell or you can’t publish it, write another book. Quit sitting around. The publishing world is a business, but it’s not any big deal. An editor is not your guru. Your agent is not your guru.’ I think what she’s getting at here is that if you want to write, write. Don’t let anyone dictate or measure your success by what you’ve had published. Just keep writing. Write for the love of writing.
And now, for a poem I wrote that urges us to let go of expectation…
a poem dashes
by like a passing train
I take a laboured b r e a t h
run to catch
up, scrabble along
the tracks in ill fitting boots
a heavy rucksack on my back
book spines of well-versed writers
displacing my tail bone, breathless
I stop my dogged pursuit.
Tail lights leave resentment
in their wake.
I sit to meditate; unearth
my breath, allow it to rise
and fall, accept
another train will come
Until next month then!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this post and reading my poem ‘Letting go’.
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